CHICAGO • It took a St. Louisan to send the Chicago Cubs to the 2015 World Series.
While writing the script nearly three decades ago for the sequel to the beloved time-traveling vehicle, “Back to the Future,” University City native Bob Gale and co-creator Robert Zemeckis imagined a future that nearly is here. They needed a spark, something to send the plot hurtling forward — at 88 mph, of course — and Gale thought of a sign from above. Literally.
His hero, Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly, had just arrived on Oct. 21, 2015, and the script called for a narrative epiphany, something to inspire McFly’s sports-betting scheme. McFly looked up to see a hologram sportscast announcing the result of the World Series. Chaos could ensue once McFly realized the most unexpected team had won, that “100 to 1 shot,” as another character says. Gale had already put an American League team in Miami, so the winner had to resonate.
Most of all, it had to be funny.
“It’s just more ridiculous that it’s the Cubs,” he said.
As the postseason Gale predicted approaches, there isn’t an American League team in Miami, but there is a contender in Chicago. A year after losing 89 games, the Cubs won their 87th game Saturday. With a 5-4 victory against the first-place Cardinals at Wrigley Field, the third-place Cubs moved five back in the division title race and maintained a healthy lead for one of the National League’s two wild-card berths. This year, as “Back to the Future” celebrates its 30th anniversary and fans ready for the arrival of the day McFly spent in 2015, the Cubs are far from a joke. They might be the future.
On Oct. 21, 2015 — the day Doc Brown’s DeLorean time-machine arrived in “Back to the Future II” — Game 4 of the National League championship series is scheduled. Coincidentally, that is the earliest that the Cubs can win their first pennant since 1945. Great Scott.
“Having the Cubs as the rival I grew up with, I was much more tuned into the Cubs than I would have been if I had grown up in Baltimore or something,” Gale said during an interview that was a bit of a prediction itself. It was conducted at the beginning of this season, in part to be prepared for a weekend series like this one between the Cardinals-Cubs that had postseason implications.
“I’ve always been a Cardinals fan. You can’t grow up in St. Louis without it. There’s something wrong with you if you say you’re from St. Louis and you’re not a Cardinals fan. Even the immigrants become Cardinals fans. The first Cardinal game I went to — I guess I was 7 or 8 — and it was against the Cubs. I got to see Ernie Banks play.”
As the Cubs reached the All-Star break in the conversation for contention and then asserted themselves, there surfaced this notion that they were one season ahead of schedule. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer had stripped the organization for parts and rebuilt it through several years of last-place finishes. The goal for 2015 was to welcome new manager Joe Maddon and start integrating the talent gathered from trades, international spending, and several years of high draft picks. The message the Cubs wanted to send was that this year was the last year of “Wait ’Til Next Year.”
Actions said differently.
The Cubs spent $25 million to land Maddon as manager, $155 million to lure free-agent starter Jon Lester, and several millions more to outfit the roster with catcher Miguel Montero and starter Jason Hammel.
The talk of being a year early “might just have been a cover in case it didn’t work,” Cardinals reliever Carlos Villanueva said. He spent the last two years with the rebuilding Cubs. “The two years of rebuilding and people were on Theo. ‘We’re tired of waiting.’ They say, ‘Trust us, trust us. We’re sticking to a plan. Trust the plan.’ Well, now you see the results. Definitely they’re standing around this offseason and they’re like, ‘We made this investment, we’re going for it.’”
With the infusion of young talent and the gelling of free agents, the Cubs have been one of the few teams that has improved internally throughout the course of the season.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny remarked this weekend how the Cubs, even a year ago, “were a radically different team than what we saw in the first third of the season.” That, Cubs officials will explain, is part of a radical shift in culture as well. The Cubs have spent five months electrifying the North Side — at 1.21 gigawatts, no doubt — but only because of four years of planning. The Cubs invested in player development, homogenizing the lessons and expectations throughout the levels and also individualizing player reviews and goals. Including the planned renovations at Wrigley, the Cubs also improved travel conditions and other amenities for big-league players.
They invited a different attitude, too. Maddon has talked often this season about needing to believe they can win at Busch Stadium. Even the comments this weekend about the Cardinals hitting batters hint of Maddon sending messages to his players to consider their team an equal. One former player said several years ago the sense in the clubhouse was “we were just pushovers.”
A subtle change happened within the system, where they felt it was important to reclaim the meaning of their numb.
“People would use the term Cubs in a derogatory way. That’s ‘just Cubs.’ They’ll screw it up,” Epstein told the Post-Dispatch at the start of this season. “That’s the Cubs. The lovable losers. That’s the Cubs. They never win. In our system, the word ‘Cub’ was being used as a compliment. If someone backed up a play or was in the right spot — that’s ‘Cub.’”
He added that a contending team was like “letting our little secret out.”
A secret that had been on the silver screen in 1989.
“I loved the first one,” Epstein said of 1985’s “Back to the Future.”
Gale was born in University City, and his father still lives there, near where both of them went to high school. As a student, when he wasn’t writing comic books or running a comic book club, he took advantage of the Cardinals’ A-student ticket program and caught games. His dad taught him, “If it’s good baseball, you applaud, even if it cost your team.” The “Back to the Future” trilogy has moments that expose those St. Louis roots. The lion statues seen in the movie are a nod to University City. Posters in the first movie announcing an upcoming football game feature mascots from U. City schools when Gale was a kid. One of the movie’s sterner characters offers “a nickel’s worth of free advice.” That’s a line taken from a vice principal Gale had.
And in the early scenes of the first movie, Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown explains his motivation for inventing the flux capacitor and time travel: “I’ve always dreamed of seeing the future … seeing the progress of mankind. I’ll also be able to see who wins the next 25 World Series.”
The Cubs’ winning a World Series was a punchline back then.
This year, the line around the Cubs’ office referred to their 107 years without a World Series as “the greatest journey in sports.” It’s a line made for a movie poster, or a marketing campaign. Either way, it strikes at how the World Series is more than a destination. Whether they do the uncanny and fulfill the McFly Prophecy this season, the Cubs see this as the end of revisiting the past. They seek what the film that saw this coming (with a wink) already has.
“I don’t think anybody in St. Louis is going to treat me like Bartman,” Gale said. “All the bookies in Las Vegas may call me up and ask if I’ve got any predictions for next year. It’s the dream of every filmmaker to make something everybody sees, everybody loves. There is all this buzz about the Academy Awards. The real award is if your movie lasts.”